Through Song And Story, A True Sea Shantyman Offers A New England Maritime History Lesson

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Sea Shantyman David Coffin at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sea Shantyman David Coffin at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The Tall Ships that will take part in the Parade of Sail on Saturday in Boston Harbor will give visitors a glimpse at a maritime age long gone.

For one man from Gloucester — who has music and whaling in his blood — it will be like Christmas morning. Musician, educator and performer David Coffin has made it his mission to bring New England's seafaring history to life.

We met with him, and members of the Revels chorus, in a 123-year-old church in Watertown. But it could easily be the deck of a whaling vessel leaving Nantucket or New Bedford in the 1800s.

When Coffin sings a sea shanty you can almost smell the salt air and hear the wind in the rigging.

He belts out songs like a true sea shantyman — that’s the name for the sailor who led the singing on long sea voyages.

A Sailor's Pastime To Pass Time

" 'Roll the Old Chariot' is clearly my go-to shanty because it gets everyone singing instantly. You can't not sing on a sea shanty," Coffin says. "They’re just infectious.”

Especially when the shantyman has Coffin’s big voice and big personality.

“The shantyman was probably not the shy kid in the back of the class. And neither was I," he says, laughing.

On whaling ships, shanties were work songs. And they’d help sailors push, pull, haul and heave in unison.

“There was always a rhythm for a certain job. And it took many hands to make light work. That’s where it comes from,” Coffin explains.

It took many hands to turn the capstan, a barrel-like cylinder with poles sticking out the sides like spokes. The capstan was used to wind rope and cable, and move heavy objects.

“So, if you’ve got 12, 16 guys stamping around the capstan, trying to haul up the anchor, if they all push at the same time, well, the anchor is actually gonna move," he says. "The way you get that to happen is to sing a song with a certain rhythm that fits that job."

Massachusetts Maritime History Lessons

"Away Rio" is one of the songs Coffin loves to sing in schools.

He travels to elementary schools with a whale harpoon and concertina. That's a small musical instrument with a bellows like an accordion and buttons on both sides.

Through songs and stories, Coffin takes students on an imaginary whaling voyage that leaves from Nantucket.

"They’re already learning early colonial history or early American history at various grade levels. And they rarely talk about whaling, and whaling was the biggest industry of the time. It made the most money. And it was right here in Massachusetts," Coffin explains. "Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world, rivaled, of course, by New Bedford. Also in Massachusetts. So, Massachusetts kids, especially I think, should be learning about that.”

When he's not taking imaginary whaling voyages, Coffin narrates Boston Harbor Cruises. He's a natural raconteur, entertaining passengers with the history of the city through its harbor islands and lighthouses — and even its pirate past.

“Pirates sailed in and out of Boston like it was nobody's business — and it pretty much wasn't," he tells passengers on a recent trip. "But then the Puritans, I guess they got a little bit more pure. And they decided, 'We don't want you sailing into Boston, we don't like your kind, we're going to hang you.' "

Coffin discovered his own history through maritime songs. Singing led to reading about New England whaling. And when he read about Nantucket, the name Coffin kept popping up.

Turns out, 11 generations back, his ancestor Tristram Coffin owned Nantucket.

“He bought the whole bloody island for 30 pounds and two beaver hats," he says. That was in 1659.

The Coffin family learned the art of whaling from the Native Americans.

And what happened next on the island? Well, there's plenty of stories and songs about that.

“There’s my family doing the things that I’m singing about," he says.

Take the song "Yankee Whalerman." It's the tale of a ship and its crew leaving Spain and bound for Massachusetts.

When the Tall Ships sail into Boston Harbor, there will be more than 50 vessels from 14 different countries.

“The harbor is going to look very, very different," Coffin says. "It’s going to look the way it used to look, back in the great age of sail."

And Coffin will be in his element, giving tours, telling stories, singing and taking visitors back in time.

More Sea Shanties And Maritime Songs Coffin Suggests:

This article was originally published on June 16, 2017.

This segment aired on June 16, 2017.


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Shira Springer Sports and Society Reporter
Shira Springer covers stories at the intersection of sports and society.



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